When Peter Guilquest gave a talk at our church around the beginning of 1997, he commented that the question he was most often asked was how the Orthodox Church could consider itself “The Church”. Indeed, this is not only a common question among inquirers to Orthodoxy, but a critical question to understand Orthodoxy itself. If there is one subject that Protestants have the hardest time coming to grips with, it is this claim of Orthodoxy to be The Church.
Within Protestant denominations, there is a wide cross section of ideas when it comes to what the Church is. It can be summarized in two general basic views.
First, the most common understanding is that the Church in its essence is spiritual, is primarily built by adding to its numbers people who believe in Jesus Christ as the Son of God as their personal savior and who have their names written in the Lamb’s book of Life spoken of in Revelations. This Church is one, connected by their devotion to Jesus Christ, and will only be fully manifested as such in the last days when Jesus Christ will return for His Church. Until then, the visible manifestation of the Church on Earth is divided by differing theologies on various points, various governing bodies and groups which in and of themselves are known to not be the fullness of the Church. They are only partially the Church in as much as there are true Christians in them, in as much as their theology reflects true Biblical theology, and to the degree that God can be seen to work in and through a particular group bearing the name “Christian”.
Secondly, there are some groups who bear the name “Christian”, while in the minority, consider themselves to be the Church and the sole people who will be “saved” in the end. To be part of the Church and to be saved one must join their group or participate in their rituals. This is the basic antithesis to the other view that no one group can claim to be “The Church”.
Within these broad categories, various groups will “draw the line” at different points, excluding some groups that others might include. It is a mixed bag and there are no hard and fast rules as to where one might find the “Church” on earth. Part of this comes from a very personalized relationship with Christ in many quarters of Protestantism, so much so that a corporate Body is a secondary, and in some cases, an unnecessary issue.
It should be evident to most Orthodox, if they readily understand this divergence, why it so goes against most Protestants to say that the Orthodox Church is the fullness of The Church. On the one hand, to say that goes against the Protestant foundation of what it means to be the Church and is usually interpreted as “you are on the outside and will not be saved unless you join our group.” For the others who believe they are the Church, it is like two children saying “I’m the Church,” “No, I’m the Church!”
These reactions, while understandable for one coming from a Protestant background, are reacting to Protestant understandings superimposed upon Orthodoxy, and not upon Orthodoxy’s understanding of itself. So it is critical that we look at what the Orthodox understanding is.
The Church, at its essence, rest upon the reestablishing of our relationship with God the Father via what God the Son has done and its application to our lives via God the Holy Spirit. To use the vine and branches allegory in John 15, we become connected or in communion with the Vine as a branch. The whole concept of what “Church” means rest upon this communion, this fellowship that we have with God in Trinity. . . .
t naturally follows that if I am in communion with God in this fashion, and others are also in communion with Him, that I am thus in communion with each person who is connected to Christ in this fashion. As a branch on the Vine, I also am one with every other branch on the Vine. Notice, however, that the emphasis is on the communion with individual persons. There is a unity, denoted here by the words “fellow citizens” and “members of the household of God.” St. Paul in many places makes a point of speaking of the “one” body of Christ. We cannot get away from the fact that for those who are connected to Christ, there necessitates a unity to be evident among them. If not, then the reality of one body does not exist spiritually either.
It is this point specifically that must be kept in mind. We have a tendency to separate the spiritual from its physical manifestation. Whether this is a product of secularization or personal disconnect; we need to come to the point of realizing that the spiritual and physical are deeply connected. A lack of unity outwardly reflects a lack of unity inwardly. If there is unity on the spiritual level, then it will manifest itself on the outward level. Those united to God and thus each other would not allow worldly values and influences to keep us divided and separate. It is Satan’s design that we stay at odds because He knows that this pulls people away from this oneness in God. It must become clear that the more we see outward disunity, we know this reflects the inner image of our condition and our internal separation from Christ and His Body.
But it must be kept in mind that this is not a one-to-one correspondence. We are not saying here that this one group is 50% the Church because there is 50% unity. Rather, those individuals who are connected with Christ will reflect that unity. The less of that we see, the less we see of the Church as a visible reflection. . . .
It must become clear, if we are to remain true to Biblical theology, that the visible Church is to be an image, an icon of the reality as it is in heaven. We know that there are tares among the wheat. We know that in the last day there will be a more fuller manifestation of the Church which will be pure, without spot or wrinkle. There is also a valid sense in which the inner spiritual reality of the Church within each person is not defined by the specific instances of disunity that might be experienced on the outside. An image is not an image if it is totally incongruous with its reality even if we realize it will not be an exact replication of the image. Therefore, it is only Biblical that the body of people who reflect that unity will be the Church in its fullness. They will know we are Christians by our love, which is the highest form of unity as one body, indeed, the very real manifestation of it. . . .
Jesus Christ, who is the cornerstone, holds the whole thing together, provides its support. In another place St. Paul likens Christ as the foundation itself. Here, however, we see him placing the Apostles as the foundation along with the prophets. It is upon these specific people in the history of our race which God has placed all the other members and saints down through history. Yes, there have been those who have laid other foundations, who have built new buildings. There is only one foundation, one building, one household which are a continuous group of people who are in full communion with each other, from St. Peter to the present. The simple fact is that if we are not in communion with this same group of people, we are not in communion with Christ. To state it more plainly, if my faith and communion is not linked to that of St. Peter’s, then neither am I in the same church as St. Peter and one of us is in trouble. I am sure it isn’t St. Peter.
This concept of “being built upon” is reflective of the fact that we are dealing with a continual linage, a visible discipleship. This is at the root of apostolic succession. For it was not too long before groups sprang up who taught different things and the only way to verify who was teaching the correct doctrine and life were those who derived their teaching from the apostolic fountain. While this is no guarantee that any particular person will teach the right thing, one can have much more confidence that they were teaching the same things as the Apostles did than the guy who had not been trained in that teaching, but had come up with something from somewhere that seemed to resemble it in some ways. While one can say that such a lineage is no guarantee against false teaching, accurate and faithful teaching requires that it be in that lineage. Not only that, but having the Apostolic teaching widely known among many people prevented deviations from it even when someone within the apostolic succession taught something wrong.
This is not to say that those outside the body don’t have any truth. Yet, we know from experience when people attempt to recreate something that is complex by instructions that are incomplete or not clear (i.e. subject to interpretation), that it often gets warped from the original, even with the best of intentions. The primary reason for the rise of heretical teachings is pride, a pride that refuses to submit to the teaching of all those who have preceded them. Satan uses our pride to bend the truth a little, just enough that we miss the true target and meaning.
This unity within the community, which constitutes the Church, is also a unity in teaching. As St. Paul said, we have “one faith.” (Eph. 4:5) It is a unity of love in communion. If one begins to place themselves in any other “household”, they are also no longer being placed where Jesus is the cornerstone. It will be on a different foundation than the one already laid. Yes, there may be some good stones in such a building. Yes, it may perform many wonderful functions. But the fact of the matter will be it is separate from the building that Jesus Christ Himself started. Without connection to Jesus Christ, no matter how much truth such a building may contain, it is not “The Church.” . . .
Jesus Christ began not by writing a book, nor by giving lectures on theological doctrines to the masses. Rather, He gathered around Him a few people and “taught” them by transmitting to them not just some things to believe, but His heart and life. He created “disciples” who not only were taught what He believed, but took on His life, His methods, and His inner spiritual peace. Constantly throughout the New Testament the Gospel is reflected as not just something to believe in an intellectual sense, but a life to be lived, a method of healing the soul, a transformation of our character and who we are.
This must be kept in mind, for when we begin talking about the Church, those gathered to exist as the Body of Christ, we must realize that first and foremost this is not an organization bound by laws and bylaws or by a “cause” or by some political system. It is a group of people bound together by Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit into a manner of life that is “not of this world.” Therefore, it is imperative that the Church be concrete and real even in this fallen world, else what one ends up with is abstract ideas, doctrines and absolutes which fail to incarnate themselves into our lives as Jesus Christ envisioned.
It is in this understanding that we come to see the essence of what Orthodoxy means when it says it is “The Church”. It simply means that it is the continuation of that manner of life, that method of healing the soul, that unbroken communion which began with Jesus Christ and the Apostles. It is this that the Orthodox Church claims it is when it says it is the Church. Not a boundary built with membership roles, but with the Book of Life. Not a group defined by a set of doctrines, but a life to which our doctrines reflect the truth therein. It is not defined by an organizational structure, but by a common communion in the unity of the Spirit reflected in a unity around the bishop. It is the joining of Heaven with Earth in individual persons within a community, who make up the one Body of Christ.
There is much more. Go read it all.